Airports

We returned last week, August 2013, from the United States. My son, Daniel (15), and I did our annual Father-Son USA trip. We stay at my mother‘s home in suburban Philadelphia and travel throughout the region visiting relatives, taking trips to New York City, the Jersey Shore, to Washington DC, and on to Virginia.

It is a special time for us each year. And it involves a lot of travel: airports, train stations, car driving, subways and buses. And it involves a lot of activities: visiting relatives and friends, sight-seeing, museums, eating at restaurants, and many other things folks do during their vacation.

What I notice time and again, however, is how different Germans and Americans are in public. Germans are very quiet in public spaces. Whether in a bus, a streetcar, a subway, long-distance train, or in an airplane, they are reserved.

When they do converse with each other it is done in most cases discreetly and quietly. It is true that German train stations can be loud due to constant public announcements of arriving and departing trains. But the passengers themselves are discreet, both on the platform waiting for their connection, and especially in the train.

Whenever I travel by public transportation in Germany with my son, whose mother is German and who has been raised in Germany, he gets impatient with me when I talk to him at what I consider to be a normal and acceptable volume level.

The greatest contrast for me is when I fly from Philadelphia to Frankfurt. American airports are loud. There seems to be a television hanging from the ceiling ever twenty-five feet with either CNN, Fox or some other channel blaring away. And because network television in the U.S. is fighting so hard to hold viewers (from going to the Internet), they have become rather shrill, almost screaming, as if everything they have to say is breaking news of the utmost importance for the future of humankind.

If the television noise isn’t enough, you have stores, bars, and restaurants located between the gates. American airports have become shopping malls. This is nice. Who would want to go back to the old days when airports were like ugly bus terminals? Impersonal, bland, boring. But notice the noise level at airports in the U.S.

Americans are simply extroverted compared to Germans, at least in public spaces. We Americans are friendly, outgoing. We like to talk, be active, be social. It’s just the way we are. And why not? It’s fun. (Of course, if we’re honest with each other, many Americans simply do not know how to behave in public.)

But I like the Frankfurt Airport, too. Well organized. Quiet. Especially after one arrives from the U.S. early in the morning after a flight where sleep is next to impossible. It‘s almost like a museum. Passengers move quietly and purposely from flight to baggage pick-up, place their things on those heavy, stable carts, move through customs often without having anything checked, then off to either a taxi, a train, or a waiting car. Yes, there are now many stores in the Frankfurt Airport. Yes, it too is a shopping mall, but a German shopping mall. Quiet, reserved, discreet.

Germans are simply introverted compared to the Americans, at least in public spaces.  Germans are friendly, outgoing. They like to talk, be active, be social. But not so much in public space. That‘s just the way they are. And why not, it’s respectful.

Comic Con

One way that Americans move quickly from small to big talk is holding events centered around a common theme. These themes can be anything from the Information in Engineering Conference to MerCon (a mermaid-themed conference). At these conferences, it’s customary for people to only use a little small talk, then quickly segue into big talk based on the conference theme.

One of the best known examples of one of these events is Comic Con.

The first Comic Con was held in San Diego in 1970, when a group of comic and science fiction fans decided to showcase some of their favorite comic books and other forms of popular art.

The one day event was such a large success, attracting about 100 people, that its founders decided to throw a three day convention later that year (which attracted over 300 people).

Over the decades, Comic Cons have become so popular that they can be found all over the world, and some of the bigger events can have more than 200,000 people in attendance.

Reasons for Small Talk

If you type into Google „reasons for small talk“ or „why small talk“ or „purpose of small talk“, it will respond with numerous links to people – experts and amateurs – who typically state anywhere between five and ten reasons.

Small talk: Signals the mood of the other person; finds topics of common ground; fills in a communication vacuum; establishes trust; is a possible introduction to big talk topics; identifies issues which might be too sensitive to address; can communicate interest, care, even affection; allows one to overcome their own shyness.

But what about introverts, those who prefer to discuss topics of substance?

Find Commonalities

In his book Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, American psychology and marketing professor Robert Beno Cialdini lists likability as one of the 6 key principles of influence.

And a way to get people to like you, Cialdini argues, is to “rapidly seek out commonalities” with that person. Moreover, the connection doesn’t have to be unique or meaningful – a shared interest in sports or a similar vacation location are both sufficient to help make someone like you.

Small talk allows people to find commonalities quickly, and thus to have influence over each other right from the beginning.

Informal. Unimportant.

MerriamWebster tells us that small talk is: informal, friendly conversation about unimportant topics. It is light, casual conversation. „They made small talk while waiting for the meeting to start.“

Or „At the corporate get-together we made the obligatory small talk with some people from the home office.“ First known use 1751. Synonyms: backchat, cackle, chatter, chitchat, gab, gossop, natter, palaver, table talk.

Facebook. The world’s largest social media space. Small talk on a global scale. A business model. Quintessentially American.

Gift of gab

In his post on Forbes online – Six Reasons Small Talk Is Very Important and How To Get Better At It – Brett Nelson writes:

„Whether getting a job, working with colleagues, winning new clients, entertaining existing ones, all of it requires small talk. You better have the gift of gab.“

He then quotes from How To Get A Job On Wall Street, written by Scott Hoover, Associate Professor of Finance at Washington and Lee University: “In trying to generate business, the deal pitch is obviously critical. What is not so obvious is that simple, seemingly innocuous conversation with potential clients can be just as important. Companies want to hire people who can think on their feet.”

MerriamWebster defines gab as: to talk a lot in an informal way usually about things that are not important or serious; to talk in a rapid or thoughtless manner. First know use 1786. Synonyms: babble, blab, cackle, chatter, chat, jabber, rattle, run on, schmooze, talk, twitter.

An Android’s Nightmare

Small talk is so important to American culture that it often appears in American science fiction, usually in the form of an alien species (or other non-human) refusing to use it or having difficulty understanding it.

In the American television show Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lieutenant Commander Data, an android, makes several attempts to master the skill, usually with disastrous (or at least comical) results. In one particular episode, he writes an algorithm for small talk, and then annoys many of the members of the Enterprise crew by attempting to engage them in conversations that are a little too non-relevant even for small talk.

Other species’ lack of small talk also caused discomfort among the humans in the various Star Trek incarnations. In Star Trek: Voyager, Tuvok, a Vulcan, refused to participate in small talk, and when asked to participate, stated that Vulcans do not make small talk.
Also on Voyager, the Doctor (a hologram), often commented that he was not programmed to make small talk, saying such things as Small talk only compromises my performance.

However, it wasn’t long before the Doctor changed his opinion about the social behavior, and soon he was even teaching Seven of Nine (a former human turned Borg then turned human again) how to use small talk, telling her that it was “a vital … skill (that) helps to establish a rapport.”

Wily

Surreptitious: kept secret, especially because it would not be approved of. From Latin surreptitius: secretly and seize.

Sneaky: furtive, sly, reluctant.

Wily: skilled at gaining an advantage, especially deceitfully.

Clever: quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas; intelligence. Derived from Middle English perhaps of Dutch or Low German origin. In the late 16th century, the term came to mean manually skillful. The sense of possessing mental agility dates to the early 1700s.

“Break the ice”

Small talk exists in every culture. It serves several important functions. Small talk closes distances, prevents silence, facilitates politeness within social exchange. Small talk serves as a bridge when two or more parties are willing and able to communicate and are also expected to do so, yet not about substantial topics. Small talk fills gaps in a personal and pleasant way.

To break the ice is an American idiom meaning to get beyond the first uncomfortable, unpleasant or embarrassing feelings when people meet for the first time. One breaks the ice usually through light-hearted conversation or playful action.

Small Talk as Big Talk

Big talk can come in the shape of small talk. A seemingly insignificant conversation can involve important information. One person would like to address important, even sensitive, topics without addressing them directly.

The hope is that the other party will respond accordingly, thus enabling the conversation to transition from small to big talk. In some cases, however, it is the intent of the one party to gain valuable information without the other party aware that they are divulging it.